If you look at the desktop marketplace, the world is not short of DAW/sequencer options. There are most certainly fewer choices under iOS and, with the exception of Cubasis and GarageBand, those options that are available are not really coming from development teams porting streamlined versions of their well-established DAW/sequencer over to iOS. Instead, we have a number of offerings that originate from the more niche iOS development community itself.
In terms of popularity, my guess would be that GarageBand, Cubasis and Auria Pro are the three DAW/sequencers that form the top of the pile (Gadget might be about to get added to that list with the upcoming audio track support). Other creditable contenders include MultitrackStudio, BeatMaker (with v.3 soon to arrive) and Meteor as well as a few other music production environments that are either audio-only DAWs or MIDI-only sequencers. There are some good choices to be had but not a vast number….
Well, now we do have one more; Audio Evolution Mobile Studio from the development lead at Extreme Software Development led by Davy Wentzler. Audio Evolution has existed as a Windows-based and Android-based piece of software for some time but, as of early January, has now been ported over to iOS. The few weeks since launch has seen a little flurry of technical updates and, with the arrival of v.1.0.7 a few days ago, I’ve now had time to give the app a bit of a spin. So, if you are still searching for your perfect iOS DAW/sequencer, is Audio Evolution Mobile Studio a serious contender?
Let’s start with some basics. AEMS is a free-to-download, iPad-only, app. It requires a minimum of iOS8.0 but I suspect most users will want to use it with iOS9.3 or later as it includes hosting for Audio Units (AU) plugins (both instruments and effects). The app itself is a 48MB download.
Once you have download – and tried – the free version of the app, you can then take your pick of a number of IAP additions to open up and expand the feature set. The most obvious starting point here is the PRO Features IAP – priced at UK£5.99/US$5.99 – as this removes the initial ‘3 tracks only’ limit (you are limited then only by the ability of your hardware) and allows you to add group tracks/FX busses.
Other IAPs offer sets of audio effects, some SoundFont based virtual instruments and various audio loop offerings. Given that the app offers AudioBus, IAA and AU support, those with extensive iOS music app collections, or options for making their own audio loops for importing into AEMS (there are various ways to do this and AudioShare support is included), might find these less obviously appealing but, if you are just starting out with iOS music making, then there would be plenty here of interest. These include versions of a number of plugin effects by Toneboosters (who make desktop plugins). MIDI in/out is also supported and I had no issues using an external MIDI keyboard with the app.
In terms of broad features, yes, you get both audio and MIDI based recording editing. All the standard functions you might expect in a DAW/sequencer seem to be supported, whether that’s non-destructive editing, copy/paste, undo/redo, track mixing, mute, solo options, automation features, up to three insert effects per track, and two ‘sends’ (to global effects), audio cross-fades and time-stretching, tempo and pitch shifting for audio loops.
While you can use the internal audio I/O of your iOS device, AEMS supports class compliant audio and MIDI interfaces (I had no problems getting the software to recognise my iRig PRO or iRIG PRO DUO, for example), including multi-channel devices. As well as audio import options, you also get various export options for your projects including rendering WAV files in various formats (24-bit audio is supported) although not MP3 (you get options for WAV, AIFF and ALAC formats).
As well as options for splitting, trimming and applying fades/cross-fades to audio clips, MIDI editing includes both a drum grid editing environment and a piano-roll type editor. The latter offers the usual options for MIDI note editing, velocity data editing and you can work with either single notes or multiple selections. Basic quantize features are also included.
This wheel is round
On paper, therefore, this is a solid – and very conventional sounding – feature list that you would perhaps find in almost any DAW/sequencer software. I think it is also fair to say that, in terms of how the AEMS virtual studio environment is presented, the wheel has also not been re-invented; graphically, AEMS is going to feel like familiar ground to anyone who has used any other mainstream DAW/sequencer software, whether on iOS or desktop.
In AEMS case, that means a fairly conventional ‘arranger’ screen with tracks arranged vertically, the timeline running horizontally, and your audio and MIDI clips positioned to form your arrangement; all very familiar. On the left side of that screen appears a single channel strip, the contents of which will change as you tap on any track within the rest of the screen. You can scroll around the arranger area and also use standard touchscreen actions to zoom in/out.
The channel strip has two small buttons at its base that allow you to toggle between the main settings (fader, pan, EQ, mute, solo, record enable and FX send slots) and a second screen for the three insert effect slots and the audio routing options. Here you can send the track’s audio to the main stereo output or, if you prefer, to a group ‘bus’ channel. This means that you can create sub-mixes (for example, for all your drum tracks or all your vocal tracks) if you wish, making some mixing tasks a little easier to handle.
Located top-left of the main screen is the Next button. Tapping this rotates you through three screen with the main arrange screen being one of them. The other two show you all the standard mixer channels for each track and the bus and master output channels respectively.
In terms of basic operation of all of the features available on these three main screen, there really are not too many surprises. For example, tap an insert effects slot and up pops a dialog to select a suitable effect (IAA or AU or internal to AEMS). Equally, zoom in on an audio clip and you can easily adjust the clip boundaries, fade in/out curve and overall volume envelope. Tap a MIDI clip and the piano-roll editor will appear….. yep, all pretty much what you would expect and, for experienced DAW/sequencer users, there probably are not too many occasions when you would need to dip into the online manual. That’s a good thing….
There are a few quirky workflow elements. For example, in the piano-roll editor, you have to tap the Note button (located top-left) to then get a pop-up menu to decide which MIDI note parameter you wish to edit… and then, for example, pick velocity from the list before you can see the MIDI velocity data and start to change it. This is perhaps a bit long-winded and there are a few other places where perhaps, as yet, the UI hasn’t been fully optimised. Equally, unlike some DAW/sequencer, there are certain task that you can’t perform while playback is in progress; you have to stop playback, make the change you require, and then restart playback. This can feel like you are being slowed down at times….. All the core features seem to be there but these occasional, slightly clunky, processes to access a few of them suggests just a little more polishing could be done.
The top-strip of buttons – which includes things like redo/undo and options for moving between Scroll (move about), Draw and Edit (essentially so you can change your working mode based upon the task in hand) – also includes the project button. It’s here you can deal with creating/saving/loading projects and import/export options. This includes a ‘media server’ that allows you to use a web-based interface for accessing your project data.
And if you want to add a new track then the big ‘+’icon located bottom-right of the arrange screen opens a pop-up for that task. This includes options for audio tracks, a MIDI instrument track (i.e. that uses an IAA, AU or internal instrument within AEMS itself), a drum pattern track (you get a basic drum grid editor rather than the piano roll editor) and a standard MIDI track (which assumes the MIDI data is going off to an app not running within AEMS or to external hardware).
Roll the round wheel
So, as DAW/sequencers go, AEMS adopts a conventional approach, familiar looking UI (despite a few workflow oddities) and a feature set that looks very respectable. No paper at least, it’s therefore as a round as a non-re-invented wheel should be. So how wheel does the wheel roll?
I had access to the Pro IAP plus a few of the other effects options and a small selection of the SoundFont based virtual instruments. While I can’t say that I’ve tested the app to exhaustion. Having dabbled with a few small projects over the course of the last few days or so, I have tried to explore all of these core features. On the whole, it was a pleasant enough experience, and my only initial qualifier would be that I think most of us, when faced with a ‘kind of’ familiar DAW/sequencer that is not actually the DAW/sequencer that we use every day, experience a slight sense of disorientation. A few days in, and that has most certainly eased, but I suspect it would take a little longer for me to feel fully ‘at home’. That said, the conventional design choices are very much an advantage in this regard.
While working with a combination of audio tracks and AEMS own SoundFont-based instruments, plus the various internal audio effects on offer, the working experience seemed pretty solid. Audio recording seemed smooth enough and the resulting waveform displays are detailed, while the audio editing of such clips, while actually not really a strength of the touchscreen for any DAW/sequencer (there are some things a mouse is simply better for and, personally, I think this is one of them), worked well enough.
Equally, while I’m not sure the MIDI note editing available within AEMS is quite as slick as that found in Cubasis or Gadget (for example), the basic toolset is solid enough and does the job. The dedicated drum grid editor is a good idea but, unless I’ve missed something obvious (always a possibility), I couldn’t seem to find much by way of note editing for the MIDI data within the grid other than adding or deleting notes. I’d have though some velocity editing would be possible? Maybe it is…. and do feel free to let me know if you have discovered how this is done :-)
The internal instruments were solid and certainly usable without being massively inspiring. If you own a SampleTank, for example, or a few of the better iOS synths or drum machines, then I suspect you will have better ammunition to use. That said, as a starting point – and for keeping everything ‘in house’ – you could most certainly get along with AEMS IAP offerings and use them to sketch out your music ideas.
The same ‘solid’ description can also be applied to the internal audio effects. They are workmanlike and very easy to use with simple slider-based UIs in many cases. Again, however, if your iOS music app collection is as well stuffed as mine, then you will probably have more powerful and creative options elsewhere. That said, it’s interesting to see pitch correction included (although I do wonder about calling it AutoTune given that that is obviously a brand name of an Antares product?)… although having tried it briefly, it’s perhaps best saved for very minor tweaks on already good vocals; it’s not a match for Antares desktop offering or Melodyne but, at UK£2.99/US$2.99, that’s hardly surprising. It probably would be close in performance to Antares Auto-Tune Mobile though….
So far, so good, but where the round wheels perhaps rolled somewhat slightly less true (without ever falling off completely) was when I started to use some external IAA/AU apps hosted within AEMS. Apps loaded absolutely fine and the AU hosting display within AEMS worked well. IAA apps also opened fine and all these external apps seemed to restore OK when a project was reloaded.
However, the most obvious difficulty I experienced was simply the apps would seem to lose communication with the AEMS host. For example, I recorded a couple DI’ed guitar tracks and inserted two of my favourite guitar rig sim apps – Mobile POD and BIAS FX – as IAA insert effects on those. Before long, the tracks simply stopped playing back (i.e. the whole track was mute) while other tracks continued to play fine. Saving the project, quitting AEMS, and then re-launching both AEMS and the project restored full functionality for a while… and then the same thing would happen again.
UPDATE: 10th Feb, 2016: Davy has been in touch since I posted the review (see his comment below also) and a further minor update has already appeared with another one on the way. I’ve now tried both of these (the second one via a beta version) and things have certainly improved. This is a good sign and I’m sure he will keep at it until he is happy all is working as smoothly as it should be.
Unless my experience is exceptional, somewhere along the line, there are still some gremlins to be sorted out in terms of how hosting of external apps is handled. Given that this is Extreme Software Development’s first foray into iOS music apps, perhaps these early stage issues with IAA and AU are hardly surprising; there are long-standing iOS music app developers who still find this coding a challenge.
AEMS has, even in it’s relatively short iOS life, already received a number of technical updates (indeed, I delayed my review for a while at Davy’s suggestion) and I’m sure these have already improved matters in this regard. Here’s hoping Davy can be equally speedy in addressing any remaining wrinkles on this specific front. I can live with the occasional glitch from almost any software I use (computers and software crash; such is life) but, at present, I’d be cautious in using AEMS to host lots of external apps….. Working with the in-house options did, however, seem to be a much smoother experience.
As I mentioned earlier, while we have a few DAW/sequencers available under iOS, the choice is still not that wide and, the two or three leading candidates aside, I think there is still room for a newcomer to come along and carve out a following. For perfectly good reasons, not everyone might get along with a Cubasis or an Auria Pro… and for those folks, some further choices will be welcome.
In terms of the core feature set, Audio Evolution Mobile Studio certainly ticks a good number of boxes. Yes, there are a few workflow refinements that could be worked on but, as a compact mobile DAW/sequencer, there isn’t really anything obvious omissions that are going to stop you turning your music ideas into perfectly respectable demos.
The ‘free+IAP’ model will also appeal to some iOS users. Yes, if you purchased all the IAP content, the price would soon stack up to something close to that of Cubasis or Auria Pro, but you do at least have the options of starting small and growing as your needs develop. Equally, if you have other iOS effect and instrument apps already, then, aside from the PRO IAP, you wouldn’t need to enter the AEMS store for much else.
Given my own, occasionally glitchy, experience of using 3rd party apps within AEMS, right now, that’s perhaps not quite such an appealing proposition as it might potentially be. Maybe my experience was unique and, if so, I’d be both happy to be told so and happy for for AEMS itself. However, if my experience is shared by others, then this is the obvious development issue that requires some attention. [See my note added above; these issues are already being addressed by the developer in a prompt fashion].
So far, the development team seem to have been dealing with initial issues in a very rapid fashion…. let’s hope that continues because Audio Evolution Mobile Studio most certainly has potential and, as stated above, the pricing model may well appeal to some iOS musicians. Rock solid 3rd party app hosting is, however, a requirement for any DAW/sequencer, iOS or otherwise…..
This is, of course, early days for Audio Evolution Mobile Studio on the iOS platform. There is undoubtedly some considerable potential here and I’m sure the ‘free to try’ and low cost PRO IAP will certainly give it appeal to those seeking a low cost entry into the world of multi-track audio+MIDI recording.
The approach, feature set and conventional mode of operation make the learning curve pretty modest for any user with previous DAW/sequencer experience. I like the basic approach, the conventional design/UI elements and, a few quirks aside, would suggest this is a pretty easy bit of software to get started with. As an alternative to the obvious DAW/sequencer competition, AEMS is certainly worth exploring.